THE JESUS PRAYER AND THE MEANING OF REPENTANCE, St. Sophrony, #15

From his book, His Life is Mine

In this final chapter of his book, Sophrony shows us how the Jesus prayer has implications far beyond the moment of recitation or the peace that emanates from it. This is because “prayer in the Name of Jesus gradually unites us with him” and “tidings of the salvation of the world are to be found in the Name Jesus.”

To realize the promise of salvation in the Jesus prayer, we must be fully present with all of our beings and not simply recite words.

Our prayer seems fruitless because the mind is not participating in the invocation of the Lord’s Name and only the lips continue mechanically to repeat the words

Sophrony also advises us to look at the Jesus prayer as continuous and pervasive rather than as a finite event in time. First, we must extricate ourselves from the exhaustion of our fast paced lives. “We must slow down mind and heart.”

Secondly, we must see its implications for salvation beyond the moment of prayer. The Jesus prayer “takes a long time to grasp the significance, the essential implications, of revelation.” It extends, thus, to our whole life. To achieve salvation through it, we must transform the very way we live by following the commandments and loving others. As Sophrony has taught us throughout this book, to truly pray, we must live our entire lives as prayer.

After long years of ascetic striving to follow the commandments of Christ, in the act of prayer mind and heart unite and jointly love the revelation granted by God.

Christian ascetic tradition calls for the acknowledgement of ourselves as sinners.  Without this recognition we cannot truly pray. Sophrony considers true repentance as a prerequisite for full revelation through the Jesus prayer.

But further progress depends on an ever-growing recognition of our sinfulness. And when we become so overwhelmingly sensible of the distance separating us from God that all is pain and despair—then do we begin in earnest to call upon the Name of God, our Savior: “Jesus save me’

Salvation begins with humility that allows us to see ourselves as the lowest among sinners.

Within the framework of our world today, calls for constant repentance and acknowledgment of ourselves as sinners seem incomprehensible and even unnecessary. We are not that bad after all, we think. Why do we need to beat ourselves all day about our sinfulness? After all, we care for our children, do charitable things, visit sick friends…There so many others who do harm to fellow human beings, torture their children and do unspeakable acts of evil. How can we be worse than them? Do asceticism and Orthodox spirituality call on us to be masochistic and lead lives of self-hatred?

In Christian thought, however, repentance is not meant as self-torture but as the means to inner freedom and, thus, joy.

 In Christ-like love there is no false humility; no inferiority complex. It is holy, perfect. The kingdom belongs to it. It is pure light in which there is no darkness. It embraces all created things in joy over their salvation

Why worry about your status at work, a perceived insult by a coworker or feelings of inferiority toward your neighbor if you believe that there is nothing more important in your life than knowledge of the true God and of the way of union with him? Why be distracted from this path through resentment, anger or fear if you have identified, confessed and repented for your vanity, attachment to your own story for yourself, need for praise or admiration as the sources of your misery?

On the contrary, if one is proud and in a state of “fault-finding,” will be remote from God and inner peace. Joy comes in the refusal to live in a state of derision and self-torture.

To unite with Christ through the Jesus prayer, you cannot be complacent. St. Sophrony talks about the need for alertness and a sense that we are “in mortal danger.

St. Sophrony and the fathers of the church constantly alert us to our own fragility, even, if we find momentary peace and have made progress toward our salvation. A single thought, unchecked, can spiral to darkness and despair. A moment of spiritual laziness can gradually return us to our default state of resentment, apathy, depression, anger and abandonment to passions.

We are told to remain always alert and live life as spiritual warriors rather than passengers on someone else’s journey. The sense of eminent danger keeps us humble and repentant.  

This is why Sophrony reminds us of St. SIlouan advice:

Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.

Don’t let yourself become complacent and distant to God. Be alert to the mortal dangers surrounding you yet, without allowing yourself to despair.

Humility and repentance are the opposite of self-torture or despair. They are testaments of hope and love.

In the Jesus prayer, when our focus is no longer on ourselves, and on manipulating others to see our superiority, our hearts become open to truly see and feel empathy for others and love for one’s fellow man

Love for God becomes love of all men.

Approaching the Jesus Prayer in repentance is the opposite or despair and resignation. It reflects our faith and hope for salvation. It is a commitment to spiritual battle and a process of constant spiritual growth and proximity to Christ. It is prayer for transcending our fallen nature and becoming sanctified before our death,

Our needs are no longer dictated by material desires but by the urgent desire for true life in Christ:

“Our urgent need is to conquer sin which strikes death into our hearts.”

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